Hey, . . . how did we do that???

Welcome back!  I hope your engine is recharged for the spring term.

You might remember that about this time last year I was talking to anyone who would listen about the importance of the final round of data collection for the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education (WNS).  The WNS was designed to combine learning outcome measures with student experience and pre-college characteristics data so that institutions could (1) assess student change over time on specific learning outcomes and (2) begin to identify the experiences that influenced that progress.  Augustana joined the third and final iteration of the WNS in 2008, so 2012/13  was our make or break year to get data from as many seniors as possible.  Since the study measured change over time, without senior year data, participation in the study would have been a giant waste of time.  After a nearly herculean effort and a paper bag full of gift cards to the Augie bookstore, we were able to entice about 190 seniors to participate – 120 of whom had also provided data during their freshman year.  All together, this dataset gives us a chance to thoroughly analyze the learning experience of a fairly representative sample of our 2012 graduates and make some generalizations about our overall educational effectiveness.

Last week we received the first of several long-awaited reports outlining our students’ results on the learning outcomes measured by the WNS.  I’d like to share one particular finding (I’ll share others with you over the course of the spring term) and ask your help in thinking about what might be behind it.  It’s not quite “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma” (thank you, Winston Churchill), but it’s got me flummoxed.

One outcome of particular importance to religiously-affiliated liberal arts colleges is moral and ethical judgment.  For a lot of reasons we hope that our students develop a  sophisticated sense of the principles and values that shape their understanding of right and wrong.  Moreover, we hope that our graduates act as principled citizens who stand up for those values even in the face of pressure to conform or fear of reprisal.

It turns out that Augustana students made remarkable gains on the WNS measure of moral judgment.  In fact, our students’ gains were on average 50% larger than the average gains made by students at the 32 other small colleges that participated in the WNS.  Digging a little deeper, virtually all of that positive advantage (i.e., the 50% larger gain noted above) occurred during the first year.  After making substantially larger gains than students at comparable institutions, during the sophomore to senior year our students’ growth did not differ substantially from students at other institutions in the study.  In other words, our student raced out to big lead during the first year and held it through to graduation.

This finding is both exciting and, to be honest, a little troubling.  First, it is exciting that we now have some hard evidence to support our claim that Augustana graduates develop deeper and more sophisticated moral and ethical judgment.  One of the major criticisms of higher education institutions is that we make bold claims with very little proof to back them up.  Now we can say with some degree of certainty that we do what we say we do.

However, there is something about this finding that troubles me – and is the issue that I’d like your help with.  The findings from the WNS suggest that the bulk of our students’ growth in moral judgment happens during their first year.  Since we would like to think that we have intentionally designed the educational experience of our students, then we should be able to point to the program or combination of programs that likely produce this remarkable gain in moral judgment.  This is from whence my flummox cometh.

Now if we were only interested in proving our educational value, this data would make me think something along the lines of “game, set, match Vikings.”  But our interest in assessing student learning shouldn’t be merely about validating claims that we’ve already made. That is a dangerous game to play to be sure.  Rather, I want to know how we can do what we do just a little bit better.  Instead of merely proving our worth, I’m interested in improving our quality.

And I don’t think I can pinpoint any particular program that is designed to influence this outcome.  Our only curricular mandate for first year students is the LSFY sequence.  Are their other courses that we might to which we might attribute these gains, such as the Christian Traditions course?  I know the faculty who teach those courses do wonderful things, but I’m not sure the focus of that course is developing moral judgment.  Is there a program designed for first year students that is run by residence life or student activities?  I just don’t know.

The reason it seems important to me to be able to identify the experiences that are driving this gain is that we should want to take full advantage of this finding and figure out ways that we can take advantage of something that we are already doing well.  And this is where I’m stuck.  What are we doing that is working?  Is this just luck?  Coincidence?  I’d like to think not.

It seems pretty likely that there is something going on here that sets us apart from the other schools in the WNS.  The number of participants in the study and the size of the difference in gains is just too large for this to be a function of random chance.  So if you have an idea of what might be influencing our students’ gains in moral judgment, please post it in the comments section.  For us to be best able to (1) make our case as an institution to prospective students and families, and (2) maximize what we do in a way that takes full advantage of our talents and resources, we need to figure out what is driving these gains.

Make it a good day,


One thought on “Hey, . . . how did we do that???

  1. Interesting findings that echo what we learned from the LECNA study about fifteen years ago.

    I’m wondering if the development of moral judgment particularly during the first year can be attributed to the enculturation that occurs when an individual joins a new organization. We tend to learn the “ropes” informally from others in the organization. In our case, we have upper class students, faculty and staff who are doing all sorts of things that show they are responsible, caring individuals. We also have programs like Campus Connections and a regular focus on volunteering that communicate the message of being an educated citizen. Much of this emphasis started with the Lilly grant. I wonder how many of the other 32 liberal arts colleges had Lilly funding.

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